The True Cost of Cotton



Environmental Justice Foundation

A report released today, “White Gold - The True Cost of Cotton” reveals the extent of environmental damage and human rights abuses caused by the cotton industry of Central Asia, mainly to supply European demand. The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) is calling on governments, retailers, buyers and consumers to refuse to buy cotton sold by Uzbekistan produced by forced labour at devastating environmental cost.

Detailed investigations by the EJF expose the use of cotton revenues in Uzbekistan to support a corrupt and coercive dictatorship. The report highlights the extensive use of child labour and disastrous mismanagement of water resources, leading to environmental crises and regional conflict. EJF’s findings include:
• Uzbekistan is the world’s 2nd largest exporter of cotton, trading 800,000 tons per year. Europe buys 1/3 contributing around $350 million annually to one of the world’s most brutal regimes.
• The Uzbek Government under President Karimov rigidly controls all aspects of the billion dollar cotton industry using a corrupt system of compulsory state quotas and procurement, denying the most basic wages to many of the 3 million labourers forced to grow and harvest cotton.
• Blatant human rights abuses characterise cotton production, including the conscription of tens of thousands of Uzbek children, as young as 7, to pick cotton. These children commonly work for up to 3 months in cotton fields, resulting in illness and malnutrition.

“Forced child labour is unacceptable under the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union”, says Steve Trent, Director of EJF. “Western consumers should not tolerate the use of forced or child labour in cotton products – and they should tell retailers they will not accept this.”

EJF is calling for a new EU Regulation prohibiting the import of cotton products made using child labour.

“There is no cotton produced in Uzbekistan in even the most basic ethical manner”, says Craig Murray, Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, “Really the entire rotten system runs on misery and slavery.”

• Irrigation for cotton production in Central Asia has all but eradicated the Aral sea – once the world’s 4th largest inland sea – reducing it to just 15% of its former volume and killing all 24 native fish species, creating an ecological disaster zone of 400,000 km2 and annihilating local economies. Uzbekistan accounts for 56% of regional water demand – largely for cotton – yet up to 60% of diverted water never reaches the fields and is lost due to appalling mismanagement and a decaying irrigation system.
• 20,000 litres of water are withdrawn for every 1kg of cotton harvested in Uzbekistan.
• The Aral once encompassed 1,100 islands and trawlers landed around 40,000 tonnes of fish annually.
• In many regions around the Aral Sea unemployment stands at 70% and over 50% of deaths are respiratory in nature caused by toxic dust from salt and pesticide residues, exposed as the sea has declined.
• Due to the cotton monoculture, Uzbekistan is facing increasing soil erosion, contaminated drinking water and 64% of Uzbekistan’s irrigated crop land has been adversely affected by increased salinity. Falling yields now threaten to consolidate rural poverty.

“Western Governments should consider trade sanctions until Uzbekistan can demonstrate that cotton production is not linked to child or forced labour and has made a commitment to bring root and branch reform to its use and management of scarce regional water resources”, said Steve Trent, Director of EJF. “Western Companies must be responsible for where their cotton comes from and right now they should not be buying cotton from Uzbekistan.”

Notes to Editors:

1. Across the world over 100 million rural households are dependent on cotton for some or all of their livelihood. Yet, unfair subsidies to western cotton producers, distorted and unfair trade agreements, supported by western demand for cheap cotton helps keep these people poor.
2. Cotton is one of the most important commodities in the world, accounting for approximately 40% of overall fibre consumption. It is produced in 80 countries with a global harvest of 24 million tonnes, worth around US$35 billion. Cotton production occupies around 2.5% of the world’s cropland.
3. Globally cotton now accounts for 10% of all pesticide use and around 25% of global insecticide use – affecting human health and the environment in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.
4. Cotton production globally consistently uses more hazardous pesticides than almost any other crop.
5. Almost two thirds of all cotton produced worldwide is used in clothing manufacture and EU consumers buy an estimated US$200 billion of clothing every year.
6. Some 250 million children across the globe are compelled to work contravening International Labour Organisation (ILO) Regulations.

7. Uzbekistan is one of the ‘Big Five’ countries that dominate global cotton production (China, USA, India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan).
8. As many as 200,000 children are conscripted in the Ferghana region (one of the major cotton producing regions in the east of the country) each year.
9. Up to one third of Uzbekistan’s workforce – around 3 million people – is made to labour on cotton farms.
10. 90% of the cotton crop is harvested by hand in Uzbekistan.
11. Uzbekistan earns more than US$1 billion through the export of around 800,000 tonnes of cotton each year, representing 60% of hard currency export income and making Uzbekistan the world’s second largest exporter of cotton. (By volume)
12. The EU and Switzerland are the major markets for Uzbek cotton, buying around US$350 million annually.
13. Uzbekistan has approx 1.47 million hectares under cotton production.
14. As little as 10-15% of the income generated by the sale of cotton in Uzbekistan goes back into agriculture and hence to the farms.
15. Uzbekistan’s cotton production consumes over 20 billion cubic metres of water every year, using around 20,000 litres for every kilo of cotton produced.
16. As much as 60% of diverted water never reaches the fields, lost through evaporation and leakage from Uzbekistan’s 28,000km irrigation network of pipes and canals.
17. Despite the availability of money, none of the international initiatives focusing on the Aral Sea have addressed the key political obstacles to rationalising Central Asia’s water use.
18. EJF supports fair trade and organic alternatives.

The Environmental Justice Foundation is an international NGO based in London, UK. For further information visit